The town of Split, Croatia is the home to one of the most magnificent palatial residences, the palace of the Late-Roman emperor Diocletian. The palace was meant to be a retirement palace near the emperor’s birthplace on the Dalmatian coast near the city of Salona. Diocletian was rumored to have spent most of his time gardening and growing cabbages until his death at which time the western empire fell and the entire Dalmatian coast came under the sovereignty of the Eastern Roman empire (Brothers 1972). This began a series of invasions and wars that would eventually lead to the fall of Salona and the beginning of Split.
Split is a busy port city on the Adriatic coast was and still is not just an economic and cultural center in Dalmatia but also one of the oldest cities in Croatia (Zaknic 1983). Split’s historical center is the palace of the Roman Emperor Diocletian, a native of Dalmatia (Zaknic 1983). The palace was surrounded by protective walls, which gave it the character of a military fortress enclosing a luxurious residence (Zaknic 1983). Split came out of the fall of the city Salona. Salona was destroyed by a group of invaders called the Avars, sometime in May of 612 AD (Brothers 1972). All the survivors fled the city and were eventually given sanctuary by the emperor Heraclius inside Diocletian’s palace at Split (Brothers 1972). At this point Split ceased to be a palace and became a city, and it survived even up to modern-day where the palace is still the nucleus of the city (Brothers 1972). Split is the result of a blend of late Roman work, Imperial style palatial residences, and growing expansion (Brothers 1972).
The history of the palace itself is just as fascinating as the history of the city of Split. After the fall of the Roman Empire and the capture of all surrounding cities 614 A.D., many inhabitants fled to Diocletian’s Palace to avoid invaders (Zaknic 1983). Imperial apartments became refugee shelters, and unintentionally, these refugees became the guardians of this historical landmark (Zaknic 1983). Surprisingly, thanks to the high walls of the palace no invaders, including Goths, Avars, Slavs, Tartars and Turks, succeeded in capturing the palace (Zaknic 1983). Eventually, the city of Split spread beyond the walls of the palace, and expansion continued up until the twentieth century when the palace became a true urban nucleus (Zaknic 1983). City planners and historians created excavation programs with the aim to increase knowledge of the original palace complex while maintain the urban area that boomed around and within the palace (Zaknic 1983). The dilemma arises when planners and archaeologists fight with the question of whether it would be better to have urban removal to serve archeology, or to use urban conservation to nourish living history (Zaknic 1983).
So much of the existing palace has changed due to urbanization and Christianization. The ground plan of the original palace is an irregular rectangle with towers projecting from the western, northern, and eastern facades (Brothers 1972). It was a combination of villas, a military camp, and with huge gates and watchtowers (Zaknic 1983). The palace is enclosed by walls, and at times, it housed over 9000 people (Zaknic 1983). The Palace is built of white local limestone and marble, most of which was from Brač marble quarries, and of brick made in Salona (Zaknic 1983). Some material for decoration was imported, particularly Egypt (Brothers 1972). The Palace was decorated with granite sphinxes, only three of which have survived (Brothers 1972).
The palace was changed to meet the demands of the new immigrants, and their new religion (Zaknic 1983). The Emperor’s Mausoleum and the Temple of Jupiter became a Christian Church, with a bell tower that was added later (Zaknic 1983). The Temple of Aesculapius, Roman God of Medicine, became the Baptistery and the peristyle became the cathedral square, that later served as a municipal center (Zaknic 1983). The double gate towers at each entrance to the palace were demolished during the Middle Ages because of the construction boom, and also because new advances in warfare had made them superfluous for defense (Zaknic 1983). Slowly the town extended beyond the palace wall outward to the west (Zaknic 1983). According to Zaknic (1983), “Under the Hungaro-Croatian kings at the beginning of the Twelfth Century, Split became a cohesive autonomous commune”. The south front of the palace where the once open arches of the colonnaded gallery stood, is now lined by the walls and windows of houses, and the west side of the peristyle is now filled with rows of Renaissance houses (Brothers 1972). In medieval times the town began to spread outside the walls of the palace and today has spread even farther (Brothers 1972). The palace, however, has always remained the nucleus of modern Split, containing some of the best shops and most attractive cafes (Brothers 1972). The ancient buildings are still standing, yet now they have taken on a new life. The Temple of Antoninus and Faustina in the forum are now called the Church of San Lorenzo (Brothers 1972). The Baths of Diocletian is now the Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli and the Museo Nazionale Romano (Brothers 1972). However much of the city, and the palace have been demolished over the recent years. Split has multiple excavations going on, and from an aerial view the ugly gaps in the close-packed houses look remarkably like bomb sites, which some may indeed be (Brothers 1972). Bombs destroyed the buildings in the East Gate, and after the Second World War the palace and the gates were extensively restored (Brothers 1972). Some parts of the palace were not so lucky. The exposure of the remains of the triclinium in the south-east end of the palace was completely destroyed beyond repair since the war, and several of the houses have disappeared between 1969 and 1971 (Brothers 1972). Much of the palace was recovered and restored in recent years (Brothers 1972).
Diocletian’s Palace is one of the most famous and complete architectural and cultural centers in the Croatia. It is also the world’s most complete Roman palace. It is nearly impossible to separate the palace from the city of Split, but then again that is what makes Split so unique.
1972 Diocletian’s Palace at Split. Greece and Rome. 19(2):175-186.
1983 Split at the Critical Point: Diocletian’s Palace, Excavation vs. Conservation.